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Montaigne's Tower

Favorite books

I sat down recently to think about what books still remain my favorites over a lifetime, and why. 

 

Jane Eyre: plucky, independent heroine who refuses to compromise her values in the face of overwhelming odds. Religion plays a stronger role than I would like, but at least Bronte makes a case for genuine vs. fake belief.

 

Pride and Prejudice: plucky, independent heroine etc. minus the religion.

 

Precious Bane: This heroine is less plucky, bends herself to her brother's will, has been sidelined by a hare lip; nevertheless finds love, more because of the insightful weaver who sees her true character rather than something she does. Prue is faithful, self-sacrificing, empathetic. Bonus points for the language.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird: Hard to separate Atticus Finch from Gregory Peck. (No wonder "Lawrence of Arabia" lost at the Oscars that year.)

 

Cold Comfort Farm: another plucky, independent heroine hemmed in by financial circumstances who takes charge of a dysfunctional family and sorts them all out. I like the over-the-top riff on Thomas Hardy. Bonus points for the delightful characters (Great Aunt Ada Doom, the depressed Judith, her sexy son Seth, the elvish Elfine, the devilish sukebind) that humanize the parody. I like the fact that at all times Flora Poste knows exactly what she's doing. There's a rational, clever mind at work with not an iota of religious underpinnings.

 

Dorothy Dunnet's Lymon Series: a clever adventurer whose character as a quixotic anti-hero who turns out to be deeply self-sacrificing and heroic is the anchor to this historic saga. Bonus points for the absence of historical anachronisms. I love the surprises; and the roof-walking.

 

The Lord of the Rings: Of all the alternative-world-building extravaganzas of the imagination (that include Dune, The Dunwich Horror, Justin Cronin's vampire trilogy, and Cloud Atlas) the Tolkien world of Middle Earth populated by hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, and wizards excels at building a world from the ground up and embedding the strange in the familiar and vice versa. The passage of time and the inevitable decay is the background that makes love and sacrifice bright by contrast. The passage that still makes me cry: when Strider/Aragorn leaves Lothlorien and returns never again as a living man.

 

John McPhee: anything. Also in the nonfiction vein, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice and History, A Sand County Almanac, James Prosek's Eels, J. Henri Fabre's The Insect World, Marilyn Johnson, The Dead Beat, and the incredibly befuddling/delightful Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders. Who needs fantasy when the real world is so mysterious? Beautiful language, imaginative leaps that subvert expectations of what is "normal."

 

Craig Childs, The Secret Knowledge of Water: captures my memories and imaginings of the southwest.

 

The poets: Dylan Thomas, Kay Ryan, Terrance Hayes, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes (Earth-Owl), W.H. Auden, Wallace Stevens, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Gorey, Grooks. Sound and sense, the beauty of meaning in the beat, the surprise.

 

The word crafters: the incomparable Strunk and White's Elements of Style (the illustrated version); Mary Norris's Comma Queen; Lynne Truss's Eats Shoots & Leaves (if just for the title); Anu Garg's Word a Day; the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus; Ammon Shea, Reading the OED; the OED.

 

Visuals/children's books for their beauty and surprise: Shaun Tan, The Arrival; Sowa's Ark; Pish Posh Hieronymous Bosch; Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

 

What is not on my list? Middlemarch (tedious; trapped female); Edith Wharton (more trapped females); a lot of Virginia Woolf (although I loved A Room of One's Own); anything by Roth (narcissistic) and almost everything by Hemingway (misogynist). I hate weak women who are victimized by rape. I dislike unreliable narrators (I'm spending time in this world, and I want it to be reliable).

 

Almost on my list (I liked them but wouldn't race to the bookshelf to read them again): Dr. Zhivago (everyone trapped); Moby Dick (loved the details like whale  dissection and floating coffins but couldn't identify with the Quest); a lot of books that make me sad (all of Carson McCullers and Penelope Fitzgerald, Brian Doyle's Mink River, and Richard Adams's Girl in a Swing, I'm looking at you).

 

The secret list of books I reread for fun but won't admit to being "Great": The Daughter of Time; numerous science fiction writers including Anne McCaffrey (Dragons of Pern and Ship Who Sang series), A.E. Van Vogt's Slan and others, George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, Max Brooks's World War Z, Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness; anything by Raymond Chandler, Graham Greene, Rex Stout, Lee Child, and Carl Hiaasen; The Scarlet Pimpernel, Prisoner of Zenda, and Day of the Triffids.

 

What are the whys that explain my attraction? Plucky, independent females are numerous here, but so are plucky, independent men. Themes of the outsider, honesty, determination (oh, I forgot True Grit), empathy, compassion, the large view, close attention to facts, beautiful language, and the element of surprise.

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Beware of Homonyms

An ornithologist who wasn't all there
was my guest at an NRA fair.
When a machine gun jammed,
I yelled "Duck!" and I ran,
but he jumped to his feet shouting "Where?"
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The Mystery of Strangers

Most portraits are of people we know. I prefer to paint strangers: people I saw on the street or met briefly at an art opening or workshop. When you know a person, your perceptions are filtered through the stories you know about them, but a stranger is like an unopened book, asking to be read for the first time; for a story to be made up about them. I met the woman “Juliette” (her real name unknown) in Italy; she is a handsome woman that I imagined in her youth (“Juliette at 25”), middle age (“Juliette at 50”), and old age (“Juliette at 100”). “Hair” is of a woman who seems to be hiding behind her hair; I’ve painted her as if I just discovered her in the jungle of her hair. “The Dwarf King’s Daughter” was inspired by a photograph taken in the 19th century in a book called Princely India: in the midst of a royal gathering, a small man, richly dressed, holds an unhappy child. Or perhaps she’s ill, and this is the last photo taken of her. The man portrayed in “Beauquet,” the trio “Id,” “Ego,” and “Superego,” “Death with Dignity,” and “The Man Who Doesn’t Matter” is a man I met at an art opening several years ago in Forest Grove. I asked if I could take his photograph and paint him, which he kindly permitted, but I never asked his name. Who is he? Would he recognize himself in the stories I’ve created? Does it matter? I think of art as a pilgrimage through unfamiliar landscapes; my job is to stir the pot and see what boils. ("The Mystery of Strangers," art exhibit at New Seasons Market, Orenco Station, Hillsboro, Oregon, August 2017) Read More 
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"Queen Victoria's Secret": publicity interview from 2011

My play “Queen Victoria’s Secret” was presented by Nameless Playwrights as part of Portland’s Fertile Ground New Play Festival on Monday, January 24, 2011, at the Someday Lounge, 125 NW Fifth Avenue, Portland. Publicity for the production included responses to the following prompts:
Short prompts:
1. A Writer I Admire Is . . . Cormac McCarthy.
2. My Writing Style Can Be Described As . . .J.M. Synge Meets Emily Dickinson.
3. The Celebrity I Would Most Like To See Star In This Play On Broadway Is . . . Helen Mirren as Queen Victoria and Paul Lynde as Dr. Lavalle. Read More 
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London Semester Journal 2008

During the winter of 2008 I served as the Resident Director of California State University Fullerton's London Semester and posted a blog about culture shock and transformation as experienced by fifty students from CSU Fullerton and CSU Long Beach. I'm reposting the blog in the form of a weekly journal with three primary audiences in mind: existing students; future students (those who want to know what the experience was like, and who would like some evidence to gauge whether or not the program is worth the expense); and also an imagined audience of readers who enjoy travelogues—who view them as philosophical, literary, and personal journeys of discovery.

Week 1: January 7-13, 2008
The Pre-Tour and Arrival in London

Every journey should start with a disaster.  Read More 
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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it (George Santayana)

In July 1941, a small paper in Oregon called the Columbus Record gave four columns to a New York prosecutor, John Harlan Amen, who railed against discrimination against immigrants. "The growth of America was accomplished through the centuries...Generations of people from every corner of the world came to settle on these shores. They represent races, creeds, religions, and nationalities from practically every known group of human beings. America is composed of each and every one of these men and women and citizenship means that each and everyone of them enjoys the same rights and privileges. America does not belong to any one particular man or woman, or group; it is the symbol of all its citizens."

He was talking about discrimination against German-Americans and Italian-Americans in the context of World War II.

"...the only way that discrimination could successfully be wiped out would be for an aroused public opinion to demonstrate itself against any and all individuals who are found guilty of such practice."  Read More 
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My version of the writing process

It’s double-down time, the 50,000-word stage in the book where I feel as if I’m on my knees pushing a cheese puff along the Camino de Santiago. I’ve erased Solitaire from my cell phone. My Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus is a barbed-wire thicket. I open the refrigerator to pull out yesterday’s cooling scene and all I see is limp cilantro and velveeta. Read More 
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Blogs vs. narrative arc

Why are blogs organized with the most recent entry first? What about narrative and arc? Does it have to do with here and now vs. the long view? Why is a blog like a raven?
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Blogging

Blogging is like putting a poem in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. It’s short and may never find an audience.

When Heraclitus said, in fragment 123, “being inclines intrinsically to self-concealment,” he didn’t know about social media.
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Advice

If in Doubt, stay there.

Aut tace, aut loquere meliora silentio.
Be silent, unless what you have to say is better than silence. (Salvator Rosa)


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